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Attorneys say juggling work and parenthood is worth the effort

November 4, 2015
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Rolls-Royce North America legal counsel Angela McDonald-Fisher shows her daughter Gabby the AE 3007 engine that the company makes in Indianapolis. (IL photo/Eric Learned)

Angela McDonald-Fisher, legal counsel at Rolls-Royce North America in Indianapolis, had an unrealistic expectation of what her life would be like as a working mother.

Wanting to be a lawyer since she was 8 years old, McDonald-Fisher had such a focus on her career that family and friends were surprised when she got married. Once she and her husband decided to have a family, she assumed she would return to work a few weeks after giving birth, enroll her daughter into a good daycare and resume her life as it was before.

She quickly learned a baby changes everything. She ended up taking 13 weeks for maternity leave and cried the first day she had to leave her daughter to return to the office. On top of that, she was more exhausted than she had ever been.

McDonald-Fisher had to create a new normal.

She is not alone in having to figure out how to balance the demands of practicing law with the needs of a family. This is a struggle that female attorneys have long faced but increasingly male attorneys also want to be able to take time for their families.

A recent study from the University of California, Hastings College of the Law examined the new models of legal practice that are being introduced in response to the dissatisfaction both inside and outside big law firms. Lawyers do not like the crushing workload that leaves little time for a personal life, and clients are unhappy with the costs.

In addition to new kinds of practice models popping up to help attorneys achieve balance, lawyers and law firms are finding ways to accommodate clients and children.

Ebert Ebert

Indianapolis attorney Kim Ebert, managing shareholder of Ogletree Deakins, remembers the legal profession being very structured, inflexible and populated predominately by men when he began practicing in the mid-1970s. Female attorneys with children at home were not offered many options.

Law firms started changing in the 1990s, Ebert said, which was driven by firms recognizing they were serving more female clients who wanted to work with women, and by firms wanting to protect their talent.

Ogletree Deakins offers part-time and work-from-home options for its attorneys who perhaps have small children to care for but want to continue practicing. The main reason the firm has become accommodating is to retain talent, Ebert said. It did not want to lose the benefit that comes once a new hire becomes an experienced attorney.

Not just a women’s issue

If Stephanie Cassman had to choose between her family and her law career, she would pick her children without hesitation.

Cassman Cassman

The Lewis Wagner LLP partner began practicing law in 2000, and early in her career she stayed at the office day and night. But, like McDonald-Fisher, when her daughter arrived in 2002 and her son in 2004, Cassman changed her priorities. Her firm obliged, she said, by providing technology to help her balance home and work responsibilities and by creating a culture that allowed attorneys to prepare for unexpected family demands like having to stay home with a sick child.

While firms may have adopted family-oriented policies to accommodate female attorneys, Cassman has seen more of her male colleagues also taking time to be with their families, including her husband.

Ryan Cassman of Coots Henke & Wheeler in Carmel shares the household duties with his wife, and, like many male lawyers in his firm, takes time for his family. During soccer season, he leaves work between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. and heads to the practice field to coach his children's teams.

Being involved with his family helps to keep him focused.

“I work to live, not live to work,” he said. “I don’t know if I’d be able to practice if I didn’t have balance. I’m not sure what I would be (working) for, I’d just be doing it and spinning my wheels.”

Ryan Schulz decided to bypass practicing in Indianapolis and Chicago in favor of returning to his hometown of Evansville where he and his wife could raise their three youngsters in the company of their extended families. Joining a law firm that was supportive of his commitment to his home life was just as important.

“I don’t think I would be with a firm that wasn’t that way,” said Schulz, an associate at Kahn Dees Donovan & Kahn LLP.

Schulz tries to manage his schedule so he can be home each evening before his children go to bed and so he can be spend all of Saturday and Sunday with them. Playing with his kids helps to hit the reset button by providing a respite from the practice of law, he said.

Achieving balance

Goodknight Goodknight

Wanting a work-life balance and being able to achieve it can be difficult for attorneys with children at home. When Libby Yin Goodknight, partner at Krieg DeVault LLP in Indianapolis, was preparing to return to work after her son was born, she called her friend, McDonald-Fisher, who advised her to not feel guilty for wanting to work.

“I do enjoy it,” Goodknight said of being a lawyer. “I get satisfaction from being intellectually challenged. … I think ultimately at the end of the day working makes me a better mom.”

Attorneys say from their experience work-life balance is different for everyone and it is a shifting dynamic. Personal, professional and family lives are not going to be in perfect harmony everyday.

To help maintain a balance, lawyers rely on calendars and technology. They keep tight schedules and strive to be as productive during the workday as possible. Also mobile connectivity enables them to work from anywhere using laptops and cell phones. They can leave the office in the evening, have dinner with their families and when the children are asleep, they can plug in and resume their work from their living rooms or basements.

Despite the juggling and time out of the office, attorneys are adamant the quality of their work is not suffering. They are putting in the hours and taking care of their client needs, they are just working different hours.

Ebert said from what he has observed, clients understand that balance is necessary. As long as the attorney is generally available, he said, clients are not frustrated when their lawyer takes time for a family activity.

Still, at times, work will demand more attention and cause the balance to tilt. During those periods, as Goodknight explained, “you just have to roll with it.”

This past July, Stephanie Cassman had to forgo her annual vacation of spending a week on Lake Michigan with her family and friends because she had to be in the office preparing for trial.

Resuming a balance after the eventual two-week trial provided another hurdle for her. She found it difficult to scale back, having to remind herself she did not need to complete every task immediately and marking her calendar for when she was to go home.

Long-term adjustments also have to be made. McDonald-Fisher has the same career goal of being a general counsel or head of a business unit but parenthood has delayed her timeline. She is concentrating on doing her job and accomplishing small victories at home.

“I have negotiated complex agreements and litigated disputes,” she said, “but I can’t convince my 4-year-old to go to bed on time.”•

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